Foot soldier of Sandtown Activist: Once known as Ricardo, Richard Burton puts aside his music to make his neighborhood a better place to live.

September 13, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

It is a perfect Saturday and Richard Burton is strolling anxiously behind a temporary stage on the Pauline Fauntleroy Playfield in Sandtown-Winchester.

He has already announced the end of the show for the women from St. Gregory the Great's choir, but they have moved seamlessly onto another gospel tune. Burton, 28, considers himself a spiritual person. He is not about to pull the plug on the Lord.

Instead, he switches on his hand-held microphone and gives the group a funky bass beat from the days when he was Ricardo, Baltimore's answer to Bobby Brown.

"Boom, ba-boom-boom-boom. Boom," he says, popping along to his own groove, giving the women a not-too-subtle hint.

JoAnn Osborne, one of his neighbors, turns from the stage, shakes her head and, between laughs, says, "Richard is something else!"

He is an irrepressible spirit, talented, energetic, a natural performer. His enthusiasm and commitment can win you over. That's what happened with "Fest-nic '96." The idea started in his head and ended as a daylong celebration for Sandtown. It was another good deed, another brick for the mansion he says he is building in heaven.

"You know what my grandmother used to say? 'Everyday of your life that you help somebody, that's another brick,' " says Burton. "You know, in heaven everybody's not going to have a mansion. Some people are going to be in huts."

Officially, he is a public safety advocate for Community Building in Partnership, Inc., one of the lead nonprofit agencies trying to transform Sandtown. His job is to organize block watches, Citizens on Patrol and other crime-fighting programs, but neither he nor his neighbors will accept those limits. There is too much to do.

For many in the struggling West Baltimore neighborhood, he is information central. If you need help with a community clean-up, you call him. If you want a vigil to protest the drug dealing on Riggs Avenue, he will lend a hand. If you want vacant houses boarded up, call him.

Maybe you'll get him, or the answering machine whose message ends with his admonition: "If we don't stand for something, we'll fall for anything."

"This is not part-time. This is not full-time. This is all-time," he says of his job. "Everybody is coming at you with their problems."

What started as a few hours of volunteering around the neighborhood has become a crusade. In his vision of Sandtown, parents take their children to nearby parks, rather than let them play in the street. Neighbors keep their blocks clean, trees are everywhere, and drugs are gone. It is a pleasant, peaceful place where every law is enforced.

"Sandtown doesn't have to be the way that it is," says Burton, unimposing at 5-feet 8-inches and 140 pounds. "We're letting too many small things go by, and it adds up to big things."

On one recent campaign, he singled out a small park at Pennsylvania and Fremont avenues. A rusting sign there says the park closes at dusk. No one pays the law any mind. That is a small thing, says Burton. Now the park is a late-night hangout.

"If it closes at dusk then, goddammit, close it at dusk! Nobody is supposed to be there. Closed. Closed," he says, pounding a table. "If you're in there, you're loitering and you ought to be arrested."

The park was one of his targets this summer. By late-August he had helped St. Peter Claver Catholic Church and others organize a vigil to reclaim the public space. Such successes are the essence of his work.

"He has the ability to hear what the challenges are, translate them into opportunities and, with the support of the community, make them into reality," says Danise Jones-Dorsey, an assistant to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. "That's what makes Richard head and shoulders above his peers."

He cruises Sandtown in an old, creaking white 1980s Chevrolet Caprice that has the heavy, boat-like ride of Detroit machines on their last legs. On a given day he might visit a local church, chat with one of his neighborhood contacts, or attend an empowerment zone meeting.

If he's lucky, evening might find him in a North Avenue recording studio, laying down tracks for a contemporary gospel tune he wants to release. Music still holds his imagination.

"Can't nobody sell me no wolf tickets on music. I know how much money can be made," he says, recalling his days with Eddie Kendricks, Kool and the Gang, Toni Braxton before her Grammy hits. "I went on stage and made $2,000 just for making girls scream for 15 minutes."

Burton graduated from Walbrook High School in 1986 and became Ricardo. He opened for the Swatch Watch Festival tour that featured Run DMC and Whodini, had songs on the radio, made regular appearances at city schools.

"He was a little phenomenon," says William E. Jackson, who was Ricardo's bodyguard. "I'll never forget the day we went to Calverton, and somebody said, 'There he is!' and 150 kids came running. I grabbed one girl and pulled her off his back. Oh, man, it was awesome."

Wanted a break

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